The facial tattooing of women in the ancient Berber tradition is a mark of cultural identity and womanhood. Many tribes in Africa view the body as a canvas for decoration and would prefer to wear little to no clothing. Body decorations and transformations were made to mark certain milestones in a person’s life.
For most tribes, the decorations elevate a person’s status and enhance a person’s beauty, in short it is a form of depicting one’s identity.
For this ethnic north-western African group, a woman’s tattoo is a means of communication. The different types of tattoos indicate her marital status, tribe, and fertility. In other African cultures, some tattoos have religious connotations and others are believed to bring healing both spiritually and physically.
Historically, women in the Berber culture or Amazigh were tattooed facially in a time that predates the arrival of Islam in North Africa. Now with the influx of Islam, many believe that any alteration to the creation of Allah is haram or forbidden. In Arabic culture it is referred to as C’est Haram, which translates to mean, ‘it is forbidden.’
Now those with tattoos are stigmatised unlike before where women aside from their facial tattoos decorate their hands and feet with the inks. Others even went to the extent of tattooing every inch of their bodies.
Berber tattoos were perceived to protect its wearers from bad spirits or Jhoun, which may try to possess the woman. The designs were stylistically made on the women to protect them from the evil eye. So, in Berber culture, tattoos are referred to as ‘Jedwel’ which means Talisman.
Many researchers like Lucienne Brousse have tried to further understand the symbolism of these tattoos. In her book, Feminine Beauty and Identity: Female Berber Tattoos of the Regions of Biskra and Touggourt she seeks to answer the question of why tattoos in the first place, so that the new generation of Berbers would not shun the elderly due to their current beliefs stemmed in Islam.
She compiled and interpreted hundreds of drawings by her close friend Elaine Ocre. Ocre made these drawings of the tattoos during her nursing career in Algeria.
“The symbol known as “The partridge’s eye” is a small diamond, its edges rounded or bearing a small cross,” writes Brousse in the chapter titled “Complex Symbols.“
“For the women who wear this symbol, it represents the bird itself, a symbol of beauty, agility … and to represent this symbol on oneself, is to attract what it symbolizes.”
However, Brousse said her work is just a “modest study, neither exhaustive, historic nor comparative.”
“The pictures showing the palm leaf, originating from the region of Touggourt, are particularly rich designs which, with some exceptions, aren’t representative of anything,” writes Brousse.
They view these tattoos as a relevant rite of passage which are added at key stages in their lives. The ‘siyala’ is drawn on the chin. It symbolises the palm tree.
“The palm leaf, just like the palm tree, represents, for some women, the (unspoken) status of “mother goddess,” a source of wealth and a protective figure, like the protective shade of a palm tree.”
Photographer Giulia Frigieri also spent some time with the Berber women of Morocco in the High Atlas Mountains and captured the few women who are still proudly wearing their tattoos. The photographic series is called ‘C’est Haram’ and discovered these women in their 70s who certainly do not see these tattoos as an abomination.